by Justice William W. Bedsworth
This column commemorates my fiftieth year in the practice of law. With all this practice, I should be ready for game action any day now.
I jumped the gun a little. I joined the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in September of 1971 as a post-bar exam law clerk. I was twenty-three years old and had just completed three years learning the music of the legal spheres while sampling tear gas in Berkeley. I was so wet behind the ears you could have grown rice on my neck.
A woman named Oretta Sears (later to become this county’s first elected female judge) saw my writing sample and dragooned me into the Writs and Appeals section of the office, which she ran. So instead of putting on traffic ticket trials, I wrote briefs for felony law and motion matters.
Saying Oretta “ran” Writs and Appeals is a bit like saying Stalin “ran” Russia. In all my years of practice, I’ve encountered few lawyers who used intimidation and volatility as effectively as Mrs. Sears.
And “Mrs. Sears” was what EVERYBODY called her. While Alicemarie Stotler (later to become this county’s first female federal district court judge) was the sweetheart of the rodeo and loved by everybody in the office, all of whom called her Alice, Oretta was never called anything but Mrs. Sears.1
She was a brilliant lawyer, a veteran of Bobby Kennedy’s fire-and-brimstone Attorney General’s office who had come west because her husband had been hired as an English professor at Cal State Fullerton. She had long ago decided the secret to survival in the male-dominated practice of law was the same as the secret to survival in prison: find the toughest dude in the place and beat the crap out of him.
Her only problem was that she couldn’t find any tough dudes. Cowed by her intellect and her willingness—indeed, desire—to take on all comers, the cowboys in the testosterone-fueled DA’s Office pretty much dove back into the saloon when the black-clad gunslinger from Washington showed up on the boardwalk.2
They’d hired her—sight unseen—because she had big-time credentials and was spoiling for a fight—a quality that has underpinned many a successful trial career. But they got more than they bargained for.
She scared the hell out of them. She scared the hell out of everybody. She scared her superiors, she scared the judges, she scared the cops. She even scared the Mafia.
Honest. By the time I met her, she had already prosecuted Ettore Zappi, one of Carlo Gambini’s top lieutenants. While her colleagues fretted about retaliation, Oretta kept finding ways to add charges to the case against him, making his interstate distribution of pornography a cause celèbre that resulted in prison time.
When I—wide-eyed at the revelation she had convicted a mafioso3—dragged the story out of her, she explained to me that Zappi and the other mafiosi didn’t worry her. “They’re like me: Italian dirt.”
This confused me because I knew that shortly after I arrived, she had to return to Italy for a week to “walk the boundaries” of her property—a requirement of some obscure Italian law that was imposed upon all Italian countesses.
That’s right, she was, as District Attorney Cecil Hicks liked to put it, “a genuine, board-certified countess.” She’d been christened Oretta Giovanna Laura Maria Ferri, Contessa della Fiorita, Marchesa di Montecalvo. “So many names for a six-pound baby,” she liked to say whenever forced to recite the full mouthful.
She was the heir to a Carrara marble fortune but her mother had been born to a count and one of his chambermaids. Hence her “Italian dirt” equivalency.4
And despite the lengthy title, she could cuss like a sailor. Her description of the law that periodically required her return to Italy was liberally laced with profanity—as was her discussion of case law, politics, judges, weather, and just about everything else.
It was partially that unchained vocabulary that caused the DA’s Office to stop putting her in front of juries. Instead, they put her in charge of all the writs and appeals generated by the office5 and all the felony law and motion matters. Essentially, they moved her to an arena where she would get less blood on the other gladiators.
And then they just stood back and let her go. She was as manageable as an avalanche—and as effective. She was legitimately brilliant—an adjective I don’t throw around much—and lost so seldom that she never learned how to handle it.
I saw that in my first case. Oretta had liked my first memos enough to assign me a small felony. So fifty years ago this month, I sat at the counsel table for the first time.
It was a drug case. Seven pills. Barbiturates.
Nowadays, cops would flush that amount of an illegal drug down the toilet rather than write it up. But then it was a felony, and felonies were serious.
The issue was constructive possession. The pills weren’t actually on the defendant when he was arrested, they were in his jacket on the sofa. This was the least of the three felonies charged against him, and the case would proceed apace without it. That’s why I got it. That and the fact it was pretty much a slam-dunk. Oretta figured even her law clerk could win it.
I was pretty proud of my brief, but I wasn’t allowed to argue in court under the State Bar Rules in effect at the time, so I trudged up to court carrying the files for the eleven cases Oretta and her minions were handling that Friday, a classic law clerk task. My brief was in one of those files, and I was thrilled when Oretta beckoned me to come sit at the counsel table while she argued it.
Thinking the outcome was a foregone conclusion, she made a rather perfunctory argument, after which Judge Robert Corfman ruled against her. The motion to dismiss the drug count in my cases was granted.
Oretta was stunned. But not daunted. She immediately launched into a reprise of her argument. Only now she was expanding it and raising her voice, apparently in the hope that greater volume would make it clear to Judge Corfman, who was handing the file to his clerk, that he had erred.
Corfman, a fire-breather in his own right, and a man not used to being disagreed with ever was now as stunned by her response as she had been by his ruling. He raised his voice to match hers. “Yes, Mrs. Sears, GRANTED.” He again reached the file toward his clerk, only to realize she was starting in again. Louder.
“Your Honor can’t be serious! This is ridiculous! You can’t really mean what you’re saying. Have you read the briefs?”6
Corfman sputtered. He literally sputtered. He didn’t know what to do. Not only had a lawyer insulted him while he was on the bench, the lawyer was a woman!
“MRS. SEARS,” he bellowed, “I HAVE RULED!!”7
“Yes, you have, your Honor. INCORRECTLY. And if this court is unable to understand so elementary a principle of law as constructive possession, the People are leaving this court, and we aren’t coming back.”
With that, she scooped up the stack of files, handed them to me, spun on her heel, and stormed out of the courtroom.
Leaving me sitting at the counsel table watching smoke pouring out of Judge Corfman’s ears. It was the first time I had been this close to a judge, and he was hot and vibrating. He was Kilauea on a bad day, and he was nine feet from me.
I was terrified. Corfman’s eyes were about the size of hockey pucks and so help me, I could see the waves of anger radiating from his body. Parts of my short life were starting to flash before me.
I got up, and backed out of the gate, down the aisle, carrying the files. I did not turn my back on the bench until I was convinced I could duck out the door before the enraged judge could retrieve a weapon.
When I got back to the office, I was surrounded by big-wigs wanting to know what had happened. Oretta had blown through like the human tsunami she was, demanding that she be provided “eleven affidavits of prejudice; we are never going back into that court. The man’s an idiot.”
It was 10:30 in the morning. At 5:00, when I went home, they were still trying to tranquilize Mrs. Sears8 and find some way to keep Judge Corfman from calling out the National Guard.
I was too far down the totem pole—hell, I wasn’t even on the totem pole—to be included in the final resolution, but I know it was somehow all smoothed out. The defendant got a deal, Oretta continued to run Writs and Appeals (and all the men in the DA’s Office), and Judge Corfman never again heard a criminal law and motion calendar.
This was my introduction to the courtroom. Is it any wonder I turned out as I did?
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.